Escape the curse of perfectionism

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


Escape the curse of perfectionism

The project

Perfectionism, at the workplace, might seem like nothing to worry about, or maybe even a good thing: after all, what boss would complain about an employee who held herself to very high standards? But the truth is that striving for flawless results is nothing to be proud of: research shows it’s detrimental to productivity and creativity, as well as a source of unhappiness, even linked to higher rates of suicide.

You’ll do better work – and feel better – by embracing an ‘imperfectionist’ approach instead.

The aim

The real motivation behind perfectionism isn’t the desire to produce excellent work; it’s an attempt to protect yourself from feelings of inadequacy. (Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability, calls perfectionism a ‘20-ton shield’: we use it to keep ourselves safe, yet it weighs us down, sapping the pleasure from life.)

But it doesn’t work: perfection isn’t just a high standard but an impossible one, that no-one could ever reach – so by trying not to feel inadequate, perfectionists condemn themselves to feeling that way all the time.

The theory

To break free of perfectionism, you’ll need to train your subconscious mind to realise that it’s OK to do ‘good-enough’ work: the world won’t collapse when you stop straining for a perfect outcome. Start small: choose a minor project, decide how much time it should reasonably take, then, when time’s up, stop. Keep repeating that, and you’ll gradually come to feel that imperfect work – the only kind it’s possible to do! – doesn’t lead to disaster.

If you’re feeling brave, follow the advice of David Burns, in his classic self-help book Feeling Good (Harper, £5.99), and have a deliberately mediocre day, in which you try to operate at only 60 per cent of your ability. You’ll probably surpass your expectations.

Try it out: 

• Split work into two – ‘private’ then ‘public’: When you’re creating something others will judge, like a piece of writing or a presentation, reduce the risk of paralysing anxiety by consciously dividing the process in two. The first stage is a draft that nobody but you will see. Then leave some time before stage two, when you polish what you’ve produced.

Make a ‘completion promise’: Time management coach Mark Forster suggests making a promise to yourself, at the end of the day, about one thing you’ll complete the next day. Keep the promise, then repeat, and you’ll train yourself to prioritise completion over perfection.

Keep a ‘done’ list: Instead of (or as well as) your to-do list, keep a running record of the work you finish. Perfectionism feeds off the feeling that you need to prove yourself in the future; a ‘done’ list helps combat that by reminding you of all you’ve already achieved.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

More inspiration:

Read Why you get triggered at work and how to stay calm by Obi James on LifeLabs

Read I forgot the brownies by Mandy Lehto on LifeLabs

Photograph: iStock